Rain-soaked rows stretch across the 125 acres of fertile farmland at the Holland America Bulb Farm at 1066 South Pekin Rd. in Woodland. It’s hard to image now, looking at the brown rows glistening in the sunlight after a morning shower, that in just 2 ½ months a wide rainbow of vibrant tulips will stand proudly above the soil, impressing thousands of visitors at the annual tulip festival.
The town of Woodland will be decked out too, because the farm donates around 700 pots of stunning spring flowers to decorate the city. Four hundred of those will be the Woodland tulip, the hybridized variety that, thanks to the efforts of Holland America owner Benno Dobbe, was named for the town in 2005. The Woodland tulip is a cross between the deep pink Don Quichotte tulip and Prominence, a red variety.
To guarantee tulips for the festival, the Dobbes give mother nature a hand. According to warehouse manager Ernst Terhorst, bulbs are planted November through January and then are forced so that they will bloom at the desired time. “We create the climate to fool the bulb,” he said. “We put the bulbs in a cooling unit because they need winter. Depending on the type of bulb, they cool for four to eight weeks.”
Refrigerating bulbs persuades the tulips to flower earlier. “We adjust the temperature of the cooling rooms as needed,” said Terhorst. “With flowers, you can’t read out of a book. You have to have it in your fingers…you have to communicate with them.”
Terhorst, along with the Dobbe’s daughter Nicolette Wakefield, who operates the facility’s Royal Dutch Flower Gardens Gift Shop, took me on a tour of the operation. In one of many large coolers, I saw tall stacks of plastic bins filled with already-potted spring bulbs including tulips, daffodils, hyacinth, iris, and others. Some had sprouted, and I could see the tiny hair-like roots poking out the bottoms of pots.
According to Wakefield, “besides the bulbs grown to decorate the downtown, 5000 bulbs are being planted in pots for the Tulip Festival. Some will decorate the display garden and the rest are being grown to sell at the festival.”
Terhorst and Wakefield next showed me the potting area, where three employees pot the bulbs. One places peat moss in the bottom of the pot. The next plants the bulbs. A third adds sand, which is heavy and holds the bulbs in place, while providing good drainage.
The Holland America Bulb Farm sells cut flower from September through Mother’s Day. Both bulbs and cut flowers are sold nationwide.
The cut flower operation involves an assembly line to de-bulb and package the flowers. First, a machine cuts a small portion off the bottom of the bulb. That allows it to be crushed, releasing the portion of the stem that was inside the bulb, and leaving a longer flower stem. Ten stems are packaged in a bunch; then they are banded, sleeved in plastic, and placed in water before being boxed and shipped. The bulbs that are cut away are composted. According to Nicolette Wakefield, “Nothing is wasted.”
The farm employs thirty now, and will employ 150 in the spring.
I was shown a cooler where lily bulbs are frozen and stored for up to a year at a precise temperature. “The temperature can’t be off even a couple tenths of a degree,” said Terhorst. “The bulbs contain their own type of antifreeze to keep them from being damaged by freezing.”
During the April festival, Holland America owners Benno and Klazina Dobbe turn their front yard into a display garden, where visitors can stroll along the paths, admire the tulips, and mark their favorite varieties on an order form for October pick-up.
Today, it might look like nothing’s going on in the 125 acres of fields, but don’t be fooled. Beneath that rich soil, bulbs are getting ready to put on a spectacular April show.